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Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, soloists and
Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana
​Photo credit, Nick Wons

Carmina Burana: Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s springtime secular ​(and raucous) Messiah?​​

Violinist James Ehnes (Centre) with Concertmaster Jonathan Crow (left), Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles (right) and members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo Credit, Nick Wons

Soprano Nicole Haslett
​Photo credit: Chris Macke

It has just been two years since the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joined forces along with the Toronto Children’s Choir  and the Toronto Youth Choir to perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the most celebrated secular choral-orchestral work of the twentieth century With four performances this week, there is no doubting its popularity. Could it become the perennial springtime favourite that Messiah is for the Christmas season? Last night at Roy Thomson Hall, a stellar group of soloists joined the orchestra and choirs to produce a stunningly mammoth production with over 300 performers on stage and in the lofts. 

Sports teams have turned Carmina Burana’s opening chorus ‘O Fortuna’ into a rallying cry, but in the context of the entire work, it is a wailing out against the capriciousness of fate’s power over love, life and death. Under the direction of guest conductor Donald Runnicles, the primitive energy of the work never let up throughout its one hour of medieval secular poetry set to music. Runnicles, who last conducted the TSO in 2017 in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, gave the orchestra and choirs the confidence to create the overpowering dynamism. The orchestra with two pianos, celeste, brass fanfares, cymbals, timpani flourishes, tambourines and chimes responded with pulsating rhythmic energy and colourful imagery. Runnicles will return to lead the TSO on two occasions next season.

Orff chose from over 200 thirteenth-century poems by Minnesingers and Goliards for his masterpiece. The themes of springtime, tavern drinking, and love cover a broad range of emotions with humour, anger, lust, and regret imbedded throughout. Most are in Latin, the language of the learned, the church and nobility. Education was valued by the nobility of the middle ages. The third section of the work, ‘Court of Love’, contained examples of poems to be performed by singers and poets in the castles of the nobility with disputes about love to be settled mostly by noble women of the ‘Court of Love’.

The performance introduced Toronto audiences to three stunning soloists. Soprano Nicole Haslett, a mainstay for the past three years at Deutsche Oper Berlin and a grand finalist at the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, displayed a beautifully lyrical voice in ‘Amor volat undique’ and moments later in ‘Stetit puella’. Singing without a score, she embodied young love as she sang ‘Dulcissime’ with her climactic high ‘D’ delivered with tenderness and ease. 

The choirs were magnificent. Each was fully prepared for the vocal demands and rhythmic challenges. Together they were the heart and soul of the work giving voice to both the raucous and sensuous moments. The power of the opening and closing choruses was spellbinding. The men of the choir were especially vibrant in ‘Si puer cum puelluia’. The Toronto Children’s Choir sang convincingly with clarity of sound and diction.

Opening the program, was a magnificent performance of Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 with the superb violinist James Ehnes. This is the third concerto in three years for Ehnes with the Toronto Symphony. A favourite of Toronto audiences, Ehnes did not disappoint. The intensity of emotion in the first movement came to a climax in his dazzling cadenza. The second movement with its lyric beauty and tenderness was equally emotional. The final movement was both light-hearted and brilliantly virtuosic. If I could hear only one violinist for the rest of my life, it might just be James Ehnes.

Tenor Sunnyboy Dladia
Photo credit: Simon Pauly

​​by David Richards
oronto ON June 20th 2019

Tenor Sunnyboy Dladla from Piet Retief in KwaZulu Natal province, Souh Africa began his international operatic career in 2012 in Zurich and has had major lyric tenor roles on all the main stages of Europe since that time. He was especially captivating in ‘Cignus ustus cantat’ as he almost became the swan roasting on a spit. 

American Baritone Norman Garrett who heads to Munich in July for performances of La Funciulla del West and then to the Met in September for its new production of Porgy and Bess displayed a warm and powerful sound in his solo work. His voice ranged from falsetto to a full-voiced bass in ‘Dies, nox et omnia’. It is a voice I could listen to a great deal more.

Baritone Norman Garrett with tenor Sunnyboy Dladia (left) and members of theToronto Symphony Orchestra in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana
Photo Credit, Nick Wons

Korngold, who moved to the USA prior to WWII to escape the Nazi regime, immediately became the foremost film composer in Hollywood, transforming film music to an art that was integral to the films. This concerto used themes from his film scores in a lyrically beautiful work that rings out with a romantic soul. Ehnes is nothing if not a romantic. He made the lush phrases sing with the sweetness of the purist soprano voice. Ehnes averted disaster in the third movement when one of his violin strings suddenly lost its tuning. Quickly exchanging violins with Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, he carried on without missing a beat. Crow re-tuned the string and returned the violin to him at the next opportunity. How slick!

There are three performances of this program remaining, Thursday June 20, and Saturday June 22, at 8pm and concluding on Sunday June 23 at 3pm. The Toronto Symphony season winds up next week with an introduction of Gustavo Gimeno, the new Music Director beginning in 2020 21. He will conduct a program of Sibelius, Prokofiev and Stravinsky on Friday, June 28 and Saturday June 29 at 7:30pm as well as Sunday June 30 at 3pm.